Scientists warn of deadly shellfish in part of Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Fri Jun 10, 2011 9:07am EDT

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Public health officials warned Alaskans to avoid eating shellfish they harvest from the southeastern tip of the state after high concentrations of a poison than can kill humans was found.

State officials said scientists monitoring algae blooms near Ketchikan discovered some of the world's highest-ever recorded levels of toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning -- a potentially fatal ailment that can paralyze vital organs.

The most poisonous shellfish discovered were baby mussels at a dock in Ketchikan with toxin levels of more than 30,000 micrograms per hundred grams of shellfish meat. This is well over the 80-microgram level considered toxic, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has warned.

Those levels are so high that a single mussel could kill several people, scientists at the University of Alaska Southeast said in a statement on Thursday.

In other types of shellfish, members of the multi-agency Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom monitoring program found toxin levels ranging from 1,100 to 5,000 micrograms per gram of shellfish meat, the department said.

State officials have posted warnings on the region's beaches, docks, stores and other public places, and police have issued warnings on marine radios, the department said.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins are absorbed by certain shellfish from algae. Symptoms of poisoning start with tingling and numbness in the mouth, and can spread through the body.

"If it gets to your lungs, it shuts them down," said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesman for the state health department.

The shellfish warning does not apply to commercially harvested products, which are tested for toxins by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

But people harvesting shellfish for their personal consumption do not have access to the testing systems, Wilkinson said.

Two people from Metlakatla, a Native village on Annette Island near Ketchikan, were hospitalized this week with apparent symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning, the department said. Last year, two people in Alaska died after exhibiting symptoms, Wilkinson said.

The high levels of toxins are linked to a proliferation of certain types of algae, Wilkinson said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)

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